Obedience and Theological Education

This week, the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo had a very inspiring four-day seminar on theological education led by Dr. Perry Shaw of Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Libanon.

In one of the first sessions, Dr. Perry Shaw drew attention tot the verb “to obey” in the Great Commission:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28:18–20 NIV; italics added)

Throughout the seminar, he emphasized several times that in theological education professors should not only inform students but should try to make sure that students are going to obey—to put into practice—what they have learned. Without denying the element of truth in it, I have some problems with this emphasis on obedience.

First, apart from the question whether “to obey” or “to observe” or “to keep” is the best translation of the Greek verb in place (τηρέω), it should be noted that this passage does not say that students should obey the teachings of their teachers, but should obey/observe everything that Jesus himself has commanded. For good reasons, learning facilitators (professors, lecturers, instructors) include much more in their courses than what Jesus has explicitly commanded (and often presuppose that students have already been introduced to the core of Jesus’ teaching in family and/or church). However, this raises the question whether learning facilitators do not assign themselves too much authority if they expect students to obey their teachings.

Second, emphasizing “obedience” seems to give a double message if at the same time we emphasize that we encourage creativity and out-of-the-box-thinking and try to resist the tendency to “graduate uniformity.” Should professors not be happier with students who are able and feel free to disobey when necessary? Especially if there is an increasing need for “missional leaders” who can function in new contexts (e.g. in new neighborhoods and urban areas in Cairo to which many Christians have come from Upper Egypt but in which there are not yet any churches or in areas in Amsterdam where the church has been marginalized or disappeared), “obedience” does not seem to be the most important virtue to be emphasized right now. A recent article in a Dutch newspaper states that the church needs difficult characters as pastors:

Difficult pastors who sometimes get into conflicts and who disobey the rules, can—if well educated—often think more originally and preach more inspiringly than the average pastor.

Third, would it not be better to emphasize liberty or liberation as a main goal of theological education? Through engaging education students may broaden their horizons and be able to break through patterns of thought and behavior that kept them (consciously or unconsciously) captive. I hasten to say that liberty does not mean “anything goes,” as Paul says: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13 ESV). As goes without saying, love is also the core of what Jesus’ has commanded.

What I write at the end of On the Way to the Living God regarding the church may in many respects also apply to theological education:

If the church cannot find any other significance for herself in our present age, let she limit herself to this: a ministry of liberation from all bondage of religion and worldview and presumptious certainty, fear from others’ opinion’s, and inner despair, by inviting us to the cross to die with Christ, so that we may live in liberty and love going with open eyes the way to the living God.

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